Thursday, July 18, 2024

10 young MLB players who could follow Bobby Witt Jr. and sign extensions, including ROY Gunnar Henderson

The suddenly big-spending Kansas City Royals locked up their franchise player Monday. The Royals and shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. agreed to a 11-year, $288.7 million extension that can max out at 14 years and $377.7 million. It is far and away the largest contract in franchise history, more than tripling Salvador Perez’s four-year, $82 million deal.

Extending Witt is the latest move in a busy offseason that has also seen the Royals sign free agents Adam Frazier, Seth Lugo, Hunter Renfroe, and Michael Wacha, among others. The AL Central is very winnable. Those additions combined with a few other things breaking right could put Kansas City right in the thick of the division race this summer

Witt’s extension figures to be the first of many this spring. Generally speaking, February and March are extension season. Teams use November, December, and January to upgrade their rosters, then focus on keeping their own players in February and March. Witt’s extension will likely be the largest signed this spring, though it will surely not be the last.

With that in mind, here are 10 young players who could be next in line for a long-term extension. We’re going to limit this exercise to players who are at least four years away from free agency, meaning guys like Juan Soto (free agent after 2024) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (free agent after 2025) do not qualify. Let’s get to the extension candidates.

Francisco Alvarez, Mets

Last season, Alvarez became the first rookie catcher to swat 25 home runs since Wilin Rosario hit 28 with the aid of Coors Field in 2012. Alvarez was only the second 21-year-old catcher with a 25-homer season at all, joining Hall of Famer Johnny Bench (26 homers in 1969). Needless to say, he is a special talent and a foundational player for the Mets. Locking him up figures to be a top priority for new baseball operations head honcho David Stearns. Alvarez is five years away from free agency.

Evan Carter, Rangers
Josh Jung, Rangers

We could even include Wyatt Langford here. Langford, like Carter, is one of the game’s elite prospects, Unlike Carter, Langford has yet to make his MLB debut, not that that disqualifies him as an extension candidate. Carter played such a huge role last October as the Rangers won their first World Series title. He’s so impressive. So is Jung, the club’s starting third baseman. Carter is still six years away from free agency. Jung is five years away. Signing those two (and Langford?) would be smart business.

Triston Casas, Red Sox

There’s not a whole lot going right for the Red Sox these days, though Casas has emerged as a middle of the order force and a building block for Boston. The third-place vote-getter in the AL Rookie of the Year voting clubbed 24 home runs last season despite a sluggish first half that saw him go deep only nine times with a .728 OPS. Casas followed that up with 15 homers and a 1.034 OPS after the All-Star break. He is five years away from free agency.

Elly De La Cruz, Reds

I’m not sure there’s a more exciting player in the game today. You can’t take your eyes off De La Cruz. Granted, being an exciting player does not equal being a productive player — he mustered only a .710 OPS amid the hype last year — but De La Cruz is so obviously talented. His ceiling is sky high and the Reds will want to get him locked up before he breaks out, and the price goes up significantly. De La Cruz has to wait another six seasons to become a free agent. Other young Reds like Andrew Abbott and Matt McLain are extension candidates too. 

Gunnar Henderson, Orioles
Adley Rutschman, Orioles

The 101-win O’s have no shortage of extension candidates. In addition to Henderson and Rutschman, there’s also righty Grayson Rodriguez, outfielders Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad, infielder Jordan Westburg, and top prospect Jackson Holliday. We’ll focus on Henderson, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, and Rutschman, the switch-hitting franchise catcher. Rutschman is four years away from free agency and the more urgent matter, especially given his ultra-rare skill set. Henderson is five years away from free agency. With a new ownership group incoming, locking up these two figures to be the O’s top priority.

George Kirby, Mariners

Extending young pitchers is always a bit dicey because there’s so much inherent injury risk, but Kirby’s command-centric approach makes him an excellent bet to age well as long as he stays healthy. The 26-year-old has pitched at something very close to an ace level since making his MLB debut in May 2022, and he’s an important part of the core trying to bring the first ever World Series championship to Seattle. Kirby is still five years away from free agency.

Gabriel Moreno, Diamondbacks

One year later, the Daulton Varsho for Moreno and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. trade looks like a steal for the Dbacks. Moreno had a very strong rookie season last year and he shined in the postseason thanks to his precocious bat-to-ball ability. Good young catchers are extremely valuable and always worth locking up. When you find a good one behind the plate, you keep him. Moreno is five years away from hitting the open market. Now’s as good a time as ever for Arizona to lock him up.

Paul Skenes, Pirates

The Pirates selected Skenes with the No. 1 pick in the draft just last summer. Would they consider extending him before he makes his MLB debut? Why not. Pre-MLB debut extensions are becoming more common, and how else are the Pirates supposed to keep a pitcher who projects to be an ace? The Royals took a chance and extended Witt because it is their only way to keep a high-end talent. Offering Skenes an extension now may be Pittsburgh’s only way to keep him beyond his usual six years of control.

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